Whale Belly approaches the challenges of modern urban life through a distinctly folk lens. I’m not simply referring to the genre of music that the band plays. When most people hear the term folk, they think of folk music, which conjures images of Bob Dylan, a barefoot hillbilly playing banjo on a porch in Kentucky, a barefoot Bob Dylan playing banjo on a porch in Kentucky, or other permutations of the same components. Educated listeners may know better than to anticipate barefoot Bob Dylan, but they’ll still harbor preconceptions which, albeit considerably better informed, are nonetheless the product of reflex.
Whale Belly’s music borrows stylistically from folk, but it also exhibits shades of rock, pop, blues, and western classical, and there are certainly a number of bands today playing in a more obviously folksy vein. Nevertheless, the link becomes clearer when you strip away the connotations and focus on the terminology itself. Folk signifies not just music but a way of life, the simple life, and a rejection of the ‘bigger, faster, stronger’ ethos that fuels the so-called American dream. In that regard, Whale Belly is a bona fide folk band. The music doesn’t stem indirectly, via the genre “Folk Music”. It stems directly from the source, evoking the philosophy that sparked the genre in the first place. It doesn’t matter that the band members are children of the digital age, residing in the most urban of locales-Whale Belly projects a simultaneous love for humanity and contempt for the society humanity has subscribed to that would make Woody Guthrie proud.
At heart, Whale Belly is not just a band but a community of friends. You’ll find anywhere from 4 to 15 musicians onstage during the typical Whale Belly set. The focus of this musical community is on creating a dynamic show rather than a polished CD or appearing hip. Those involved put as little distance between themselves and the audience as possible. Vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Todd Bogin explains, “we work really hard at involving the crowd and making them feel a part of the whole thing.” The group frequently performs stunt like having the crowd jump up on stage to sing along.
It’s also clearly not about the money, as Whale Belly is offering up its entire debut album, The Smile at the End of the Slope, for free download. Incidentally, this album makes a perfect introduction to the band. It gathers up the chaotic reverie of the moment and miraculously packs it into a slender little disc that can be spun again and again. Needless to say, it doesn’t fit so cleanly, and casual listeners may view the recordings as cluttered or even sloppy. Some tracks have so much going on that it’s difficult to pick individual parts out of the mix. However, so much seems unavoidable when you have a ten-track album featuring 23 different musicians on instruments ranging from violins to Wurlitzers. The recordings are about as close to a live set in a packed and slightly inebriated club as you can get without stepping out of your apartment. The sincerity and intimacy of the music are completely unabridged.
In addition to the live aesthetic, the album is supplemented with original artwork by Bogin, which adds a personal and decidedly playful touch to every song. I’ve included the images for both songs in this review and the rest can be downloaded on the band’s website along with the album. As you’ll notice, darker themes are dressed in the bright colors and cartoon abstraction of youthful optimism. Not a bad metaphor for the band.
Even the name is revealing, foreshadowing the lyrical content of the album. We could view the slope as symbolic of the struggles that we must endure to make ends meet and arrive at something to smile about, but that’s not the whole story. The name also pays homage to the band’s neighborhood, Brooklyn’s South Slope, while riffing off clichés like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or the light at the end of the tunnel. This clever double entendre is only the tip of the iceberg, for you’ll find that Whale Belly has a penchant for wordplay that’s evident throughout its catalogue.
In A-Side “Odds and Ends” Whale Belly takes a stock phrase, flips it on its end, and uses the resulting deviation as a platform to explore a complex social phenomenon, unfounded biases and our reluctance to accept differences.
It’s odds and ends, ends and odds We’re both the same person, just believe in different gods Mine is cruel and yours is sly…
The listener finds an ironic twist at every turn, culminating in the parallel structure of the refrain:
I know what I hate but I just don’t know why.
The constant double entendre allows for an economy of language, since each phrase is packed with so many layers of meaning that Whale Belly manages to say a lot while saying very little. As for delivery, Bogin’s voice grabs listeners’ attention right away. It’s not pretty and it’s not always in tune, yet that’s often an asset in both Folk Music and music of the common folk alike. Honesty is the goal and perfection is not honest. Bogin delivers like a true balladeer and when I listen to Whale Belly, I feel as if I’m being told a story rather than merely sung a song. And if the vocals seem abrasive, the music will temper that. Tasty fiddle licks smooth out the rough spots, naturally driving the swells in volume and tempo and helping the arrangement gel together. Meanwhile, snappy snare rolls, uptempo country guitar strumming, and a steady rockabilly bassline provide the tension and momentum to keep the listener engaged.
If you like what you hear, you’ll also want to check out the music video. It fits broadly with the theme of soul searching expressed in the lyrics and highlights the sense of movement conveyed by the music… but above all, it’s fun!
B-Side “Poor Man’s Dance” is considerably more amped up than “Odds and Ends” and demonstrates the range of Whale Belly’s genre-hopping. Bogin observes that when comparing the two, “you can easily see the diversity of the band and get an idea of how different each song on the album sounds.” You’ll still find a bit of folk perspective but the Folk Music is buried under a healthy slab of distortion. The chorus even hints at a rock anthem, while the guitar generally leans toward blues. Aurally, it may still seem like an abrupt transition but the lyrics and structure help it adhere to the Whale Belly’s aesthetic. True to form, the band uses impeccable wordplay in treating some heavy issues.
The song hinges on the refrain-also the title lyric_- “do the poor man’s dance…“_ To an extent, I feel like any song bold enough to reference its own dance and to order the listener to do it commands a certain degree of respect. Such songs make it crystal clear that you damn well better shut up and dig it, even if the “it” is something as lewd as to “superman that ho” or as inane as the hokey-pokey. In this case, the command is considerably more philosophical than either, but similarly self actualizing and, astonishingly, the first verse manages to reference the hokey-pokey without sounding stupid.
Put your whole life in Take your whole life out Take all your clothes and shake the money out
It’s the ironic recasting of a poor man rifling through his pockets for change as an action so deliberate and artful as a dance. Powerful juxtaposition.
In summary, check out the album because it’s free and every song has something unique to offer! If you have the time and means, check out Whale Belly in concert too, because despite all I’ve said about the live aesthetic of the album, nothing can completely replicate the thrill of joining in on the moment and arriving at that smile at the end of the slope.
Odds and Ends
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem127/01 Odds and Ends.mp3
Poor Mans Dance
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem127/02 Poor Mans Dance.mp3